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What is Stress—and How Does it Manifest in Our Bodies?

April 11, 2023

What is stress? Stress is a normal part of everyday life. It’s the revved-up physiological and emotional impact of stressors on your body and life, whether it stems from the responsibilities of a high-pressure job, the desire to meet challenging fitness goals or managing a calendar filled with work and family obligations. 

At times, Stanford experts note, stress can even be good and help enhance your immune function or propel you to safety when under real threat. But while it’s normal and natural to experience some stress, when faced with frequent and high stress levels over time, your body and mind can suffer.

As with everything, moderate stress is okay—but excess amounts may become harmful. According to the American Institute of Stress, 55% of U.S. adults deal with feelings of stress daily. 

What is Stress?

Stress is the body’s natural response to a physical or mental challenge. It can speed up the aging process, cause inflammation, and impact vital recovery processes. Stress can have negative impacts on the body and brain, but healthy levels of stress can actually help improve your focus, memory, and overall performance. Experiences of stress typically involve both mental and physical responses. 

Types of Stress

Stress can impact individuals in several different ways—good and bad. It’s essential to be aware of the different types of stress. Here are three of the most common types of stress:

Acute Stress

When you experience short-term emotional stress, it’s classified as acute stress. Examples of this type of stress can be trigger by an application close to a deadline, almost getting in an accident while driving, or giving a speech in front of a large crowd. Acute stress doesn’t usually last much longer than the situation or event caused by it. 

Episodic Acute Stress

Episodic acute stress involves experiencing episodes of acute stress regularly. One example of an episodic acute stress trigger is overbooking yourself. For example, experiencing frequent physical or emotional repeat trauma, suffering from PTSD symptoms, or being under constant high-level professional or financial stress would likely cause frequent episodes of acute stress

Chronic Stress

The third most common type of stress is chronic stress. Chronic stress occurs when you consistently experience stress for a lengthy period. With chronic stress, there is constant activation of the central nervous system. Persistent health issues, dysfunctional relationships and job dissatisfaction are all potential causes of chronic stress.

How Does Stress Manifest in Our Bodies

How does chronic stress affect the body? The body’s natural stress response is activated in response to acute and chronic stress. Each of the three types of stress can affect the body, but chronic stress can have a particularly damaging, long-term impact on physical health. 

You feel on edge

The body reacts to stress by releasing hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases the heart rate and blood pressure, while cortisol ensures large amounts of glucose are available in the bloodstream and optimizes glucose usage in the brain. 

Your body’s stress response prepares the body to react to a perceived threat, often called the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. This can be helpful in the short term when there is an actual threat to face, but becomes an issue when it stays activated long-term with chronic stress in the absence of acute threats. 

How to help: Try techniques that promote muscle relaxation to combat muscle tension caused by stress. Loosen your muscles by stretching before and after workouts, experimenting with progressive muscle relaxation, practicing yoga and focusing on getting enough sleep each night. Practicing breathwork also reduces stress and may improve sleep

Deep breathing exercises, like the cyclic sighing exercise, found in the Stress Monitor feature, among other breathing techniques, can be done at night or throughout the day to help manage stress.

You can also add hobbies to your routine that promotes stress relief to your schedule. Consider activities commonly linked to stress reduction, such as gardening, hiking, dancing, listening to or playing music, reading, dancing or artistic hobbies like drawing, writing, painting and knitting. 

Your digestive system isn’t functioning optimally 

The constant activation of the stress response that occurs with chronic stress impacts many systems in the body and disrupts normal, healthy function. Constant muscle tension can cause migraines, tension headaches, and pain in the back and other areas of the body. In the GI tract, persistent stress can exacerbate uncomfortable symptoms, including vomiting, nausea, bloating and pain.

How to help: Following a healthy, well-balanced diet sets your body up to handle stress successfully. Prioritize nutrient-rich ingredients like lean proteins, fruits and vegetables and avoid unhealthy processed and junk foods. Stay hydrated with plenty of fresh water and limit alcohol consumption

Studies have shown that exercise can reduce tension and boost mood while improving sleep quality and self-esteem. As little as five minutes of aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress.

Here are some of the most common physical signs of stress:

  • Headaches
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Digestive upset
  • Reduced energy levels
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Aches and pains
  • Grinding and clenching teeth

Emotional stress can be recognized by these symptoms:

  • Difficulty relaxing
  • Experiencing Irritability or agitation
  • Trouble concentrating and making decisions
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Having worried or racing thoughts
  • Having a pessimistic outlook
  • Feeling lonely or isolated
  • Experiencing reduced self-esteem


Track and Manage Stress with WHOOP

There is no single definition of stress, and everyone experiences stress differently. Feelings of stress can be self-reported based on how you feel, or measured with biomarkers, like cortisol.

Stress Monitor measures your heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV) in the moment as indicators of your physiological response to stress. Your reading is then compared to your personalized baseline from the past 14 days, and any motion is taken into account to help distinguish known stressors, like exercise, from other stressors. Stress Monitor then identifies your stress levels on a scale of 0 (low stress) to 3 (your peak stress level).

To better understand the psychological experience of stress, you can use the WHOOP Journal. You can log your perceived stress levels and WHOOP will analyze how self-reported stress effects your resting heart rate, heart rate variability, recovery, and duration of each stage of sleep.

Stress Monitor continuously updates your score throughout the day, and you can track changes and trends in your stress level by checking your Stress Monitor graph. 

You can also manage stress by implementing scientifically validated breathwork interventions developed in partnership with Dr. Andrew Huberman as you track your stress levels. Research shows that these breathing exercises can mediate symptoms of stress by boosting mood, lowering anxiety, and decreasing respiratory rates. 

Try Stress Monitor from WHOOP to effectively track your stress levels and stay on top of stress symptoms in your everyday life.

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